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Theodor Barth on the Need for Left-Liberal Opposition to Bismarck (June 26, 1886)

By the mid-1880s many German liberals felt betrayed by Bismarck's autocratic policies. They criticized the chancellor for riding “state-supporting” parties like post-horses, driving each one to exhaustion before switching to another. In June of 1886, Theodor Barth (1849-1909) expressed this viewpoint while also calling for more determined opposition to Bismarck. In this document Barth criticizes the chancellor's drift away from free trade, freedom of occupation, and freedom of expression, as well as his efforts to wind down the Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church. Besides offering a clear contrast to Julius Jolly's 1880 analysis of the necessary give-and-take between the government and political parties, Barth's statement reflects left-liberals’ hope that a Bismarckian regime will soon be followed by the more liberal reign of Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm (who died, however, after only ninety-nine days on the throne in 1888).

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Two decades have now passed since the final confrontation between Prussia and Austria on the battlefields of Bohemia. In this interval the North German Confederation was founded, then the German Reich. The same statesman has managed the policies of Prussia and Germany over these two decades; therefore it would seem only natural for this period to have been dominated by the same political principles. Instead, there was a drastic change around the midpoint of this era, which brought these two decades into the most pronounced political contrast. This contrast is discernible in every realm: in the public mood, whose patriotic hopefulness has suddenly turned into sullen pessimism, and in party constellations, too. Today, for example, one finds the Kreuzzeitung's Deklaranten* among the core supporters of Prince Bismarck. On the other hand, the most industrious contributors to the legislation of the first decade find themselves forced to put up increasingly resolute opposition, and ultramontanism, the main enemy of the first decade, dictates to Bismarck the conditions of a peace requested from the Curia. This abrupt turn has taken place in almost all branches of domestic politics. Moderate free trade has been displaced by crass protectionism, individualism by socialism, and free development increasingly by paternalism. Emergency acts, mass expulsions, the most ruthless interest politics, capitulation before the pope, the reestablishment of guild restrictions, the colonial swindle, and similar achievements: these are the characteristic phenomena of the second half of a period whose first half was marked by the glorious founding of the German Empire and its consolidation on the basis of free economic principles – and reasonably free political ones.

Whoever remains constantly loyal to Prince Bismarck in the course of this fundamental change of systems will surely possess the degree of adaptability necessary to cope with any political challenge. It is not surprising, however, that such perfect suppleness is found only among a few politicians – excepting those who make a lack of character their profession – and that for several years now a general chassez-croisez** has been unfolding. Under these circumstances, entire parties have failed to regain a firm position. We members of the Radical Party have

* After Bismarck attacked the Conservative Party's leading newspaper, the Neue Preußische (Kreuz-) Zeitung, because it had claimed in 1875 that the government's “Jewish policies” were ruining the economy, a group of Old Conservatives replied with a declaration of their own on February 26, 1876, defending their independence from the government. These men became known as the Kreuzzeitung’s Deklaranten – ed.
** A swapping of partners, or a back-and-forth movement – ed.

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